Depicting Devotion: Illuminated Books of Hours from the Middle Ages

Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, St. Louis, Winter 2001-2001

Table of Contents
Books of Hours
I Calendar
II Gospel Lessons
III Hours of the Virgin
IV Hours of the Cross
V Additional Prayers to the Virgin
VI Hours of the Holy Spirit
VII Penitential Psalms
VIII Office of the Dead
IX Accessory Texts
X Peacocks and Eggs

Online Exhibitions
Special Collections Home

Section X: Peacocks and Eggs

A frequent figure in these manuscripts, as well as in art and architecture of the Christian Church from early times, is the peacock. The peacock appears in borders and in illuminations. Examples of drollery (the term for these playful figures) appear in the margins; these figures are typically not symbolic. Since it was believed that the peacock's flesh did not rot, the peacock symbolized immortality. Two qualities of the peacock, its regalness and its incorrupt body, linked it to the Virgin Mary: like the Virgin, the peacock was considered royal, and the Virgin's body was incorrupt and taken to heaven unstained by death, like the peacock's. The peacock's association with pride and vanity occurred later.

Although peacocks leave the egg-laying to the peahens, eggs likewise represent eternal life. The egg is symbolic of Christ's resurrection, the creation of new life. Eggs also became associated with the resurrection since they were forbidden during the Lenten fast; at Easter, they were symbolic gifts representing new life and an end to fasting. Frequently they were painted red, in commemoration of Christ's blood.

Nativity scene MS 10
Probably Flemish, (1st-) 2nd quarter of the 15th C.
very eccentric artist
22.5 cm. by 16 cm., BX2080/R5/15th C.

Here the infant Christ holds the egg, foreshadowing later events.

O Intemerata MS 6
Paris ca. 1450
possibly the work of a follower of the Bedford Master
20 cm by 13 cm, BX2080/R72/ca. 1450

O Intemerata
In this depiction, which accompanies the O Intemerata prayer, the Virgin holds a red, gilded egg while a heavenly choir and angel musicians surround her. In this jubilant scene, the angels conveniently (at least for the viewer) hold the music notation upside down so as to make it legible. The text reads Gloria , making clear their celebration.

Peacock and drollery MS 8
Probably Parisian, late 15th C., could be ca. 1490s
very standard late 15th C. style, stylistically similar to work of Jean Bourdichon
17.5 cm. by 11.7 cm, BX2080/L75/late 15th C

Penitential Psalms
Peacock and drollery in marginal illuminations.

Detail of peacock decoration MS 4
Flemish, ca. 1480s-1490s
stylistically closer to Ghent than Bruges
19.5 cm by 13.3 cm, BX2080/A4/ca. 1450

Hours of the Passion
To see the full page click here

Detail of peacock decoration MS 10
Probably Flemish, (1st-) 2nd quarter of the 15th C.
very eccentric artist
22.5 cm. by 16 cm., BX2080/R5/15th C.

To see the full page click here .
To see both a peacock and an egg in one illumination, see the manuscript case, MS 3 .

Top of Page ~ Previous Page ~ Table of Contents